People v. Wortham


FACTUAL BACKGROUND: During the search of a home for guns and drugs, an officer asked the defendant, who was inside the home, what his address was. The defendant answered that he lived in the apartment. Drugs were later found in the residence and this statement was used to prove his possession of those drugs.    

ISSUES PRESENTED: 1. Even where police questioning is likely to induce an incriminating response, is the questioning immune from Miranda under a “pedigree” exception. 2. Whether the court’s erroneous failure to hold a Frye hearing required reversal or remittal for a Frye hearing?

HOLDING: Even if police questioning is likely to induce an incriminating response—thus satisfying the traditional “interrogation” standard under Rhode Island v. Innis, 46 U.S. 291, 301 (1980)—the questioning is exempt from Miranda under a pedigree exception if: (1) it is reasonably related to the police’s administrative concerns; and (2) a “reasonable person would [not] conclude based on an objective analysis that the pedigree question was a disguised attempt at investigatory interrogation.”

On the Frye issue, the Court held that remittal was the appropriate remedy even though the State raised this remedy point for the first time during oral argument.

CAL OBSERVES: Courts have long despised Miranda. So, it’s no surprise that the Court here firmly ratified a pedigree exception and did so without addressing some obvious doctrinal problems. Most fundamentally, why should there be a blanket exception to a constitutional right for the State’s routine “administrative” concerns, such as the purported need to learn where an arrestee lives? We don’t normally create exceptions to constitutional rights unless there is a compelling reason to do so (for instance, Miranda does not apply when questioning is necessary to address an emergency and dangerous situation). But no one can plausibly argue that police invariably have a compelling interest in learning an arrestee’s address, age, or employment. Perhaps particular emergency circumstances might justify dispensing with Miranda before asking an individual for pedigree information, but a categorial “administrative” exception is far too broad.

Nor did the Court recognize that the Supreme Court has never adopted this exception. Only a plurality has, Pennsylvania v. Muniz, 496 U.S. 582, 601-02 (1990), so federal constitutional doctrine did not mandate this doctrinally unsound approach either

People v. Rodney, 85 N.Y.2d 289 (1995), was a key case here. As Judge Rivera’s dissent stressed, Rodney held that even if routine-booking questioning is related to administrative concerns, it is still subject to Miranda if “likely to elicit incriminating admissions because of the circumstances of the particular case.” 85 N.Y.2d at 293. The majority essentially disregarded that prong of the Rodney decision, claiming it was “clarify[ing]” the “confusion” Rodney had “engendered.” Ultimately, the majority seized on Rodney’s comment that Miranda did not apply because there was no “disguised attempt at investigatory interrogation,” morphing this comment into the new touchstone.

While Judge Rivera’s dissent correctly observed that the majority was essentially overruling Rodney, Rodney is a strange opinion, as it ultimately held that questioning a suspect about what he “did for a living”—after arresting him for a purported drug sale to an undercover officer—was not “reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.” Id. at 294. That baffling holding appears to reflect an effort by the Rodney Court to create an insurmountable barrier to relief. So, instead of relying on an opaque decision with a strange holding, it seems to us that the dissent should have returned to first principles and attacked a “booking” exception head on.

As for the Frye remittal issue, Judge Wilson’s dissent briefly pointed out that the prosecution had waived a remittal argument by raising it for the first time during oral argument. The majority dodged this procedural point. This is unfortunate. It is fundamentally unfair for courts to reach questions that have not been raised by the parties until oral argument, at least without giving the other side a clear opportunity to address the issue through briefing or oral argument. It is frustrating to us—and litigants throughout the State—that the Court of Appeals routinely dodges procedural arguments (such as the waiver argument raised by the dissent here). The Court’s practice of arbitrarily picking and choosing which procedural arguments it will address should come to an end.